Daily Archives: February 29, 2012


I was talking with my friend, colleague, and fellow word taster Amy Toffelmire today about the Oscar results, and how she had beaten me in the office Oscar pool by correctly picking the documentary (all the rest of our picks were identical). I had picked Paradise Lost 3. Amy commented that the characters in the movie were what she, growing up in Arkansas (where the movie is set) and California, had called heshers.

Now, if you know what hesher means, and you have read enough of my posts to know I have a certain liking for heavy metal music (many other kinds, too, have no fear), you will probably be surprised to learn that I was entirely unfamiliar with the term. Amy explained that they were metalheads, a particular breed thereof. She forwarded me the Urban Dictionary link.

I love Urban Dictionary. It shows very clearly that the way a lot of people approach semantics – trying to isolate abstract defining properties, and setting aside what they call “encyclopedic knowledge” – has real shortcomings. As a reliable dictionary, Urban Dictionary of course has its own shortcomings, but for a term like this one – a slang term used by just the sort of people who frequent the site – its assorted entries, which are contributed by whoever wants and voted on by site visitors, help to paint a pretty good picture of the way people picture the word’s object. I will quote several of its definitions at length, with vulgarities censored not because I have a problem with them but because I know they will unduly distract some readers:

Reebock-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents’ basement and swears that he/she can really rock out on his/her Ibanez Stratocaster copy guitar and probably owns a Nova that hasn’t run in 5 years but you just wait, that ——er is gonna smoke those ——in Japanese rice burners once I put a new head gasket on it.

Long haired, usually mulleted person who listens and rocks out to Metal or Thrash music.Generally seen wearing acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle or denim jacket covered with band and skull patches. Will often have a Molester Moustache

A grungy, long haired, plastic comb-brush in the back pocket stoner with an 80’s rock shirt. Sometimes, a little ‘off’ from the drug damage. Rides an adult sized BMX bike around town and knocks over trash cans by kicking out with his back tire.

By now you really have a pretty clear image, don’t you? It’s true that the definitions can be a little overly precise, but if you have the image, then you have the type, and you undoubtedly have seen that type of person. Not all metalheads are heshers. Not all stoners are heshers. Not all people with mullets (or similar hair) are heshers. Not all people who have a problem adapting to adult reality are heshers. But heshers exist as a subset in the intersection of those sets, and further characteristics are entailed as emergent or culturally determined properties.

To further define the type, a movie, Hesher, was made in 2010. The central character is actually named Hesher, but it’s after the type. The biggest-name actor in the movie was Natalie Portman. And yet you probably haven’t heard of it, let alone seen it. Neither have I. From what I’ve read, it sucked. Which seems oddly appropriate.

The term hesher itself has been around for somewhat longer than that. It seems to have come into being in the 1980s. The etymology is a little smoky, but of course there are plenty of ideas. The lamest one is one that I saw on Yahoo! Answers, suggesting that it’s from he+she+her in reference to the long hair. Other speculation is that it’s some kind of blend of headbanger or heavy metal and thrasher. Some think it was first a term for a drug user (possibly from a verb hesh, heshing), but aside from an obvious taste of hash there’s no particular account for this (nor any explanation for the necessary vowel shift). Certainly no one is attempting to say that the word comes from the sound and sensation of inhaling marijuana or the torrents of white noise you hear when too near a stage stack speaker, both of which hesher sounds a bit like.

Perhaps the most common theory attaches it to Hessian, which was a term that came into being in the 1980s, probably in self-reference first, for a certain aggressively masculine type of headbanger (metalhead), perhaps a specific subset who preferred German industrial metal and perhaps neo-Nazi imagery (metal in general is not a hotbed of racism), but Germanic and bellicose imagery are common currency in many metal circles. The reference is of course to the Teutonic mercenaries of the 18th century. Some references to Hessians (of the metal kind) use hesher as a shortened form. Given the frequency of -er words in reference to types of music fans (especially in these kinds of genres), as well as the palatalization of the /s/ before the /i/ in Hessian (and the frequent assimilation of the /i/ into that), the derivation is reasonable, though I do not have full proof for it.

Incidentally, the original Hessians were called Hessians because many of them were from Hesse, a state in Germany. It contains cities such as Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach. Hesse in turn gained its name from a Latin version of the original Germanic name of the inhabitants, the Chatti or Hassi. And there the trail runs cold. But it’s fair to imagine that the Chatti had long, greasy hair, wore leather jackets, smoked a lot of weed, listened to thrash metal, and drove burnt-out cars or BMX bikes. Not.